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Hot Air: The Claim that Gas is Greener than Solar and Wind

Is natural gas energy “greener” than solar and wind? That is the surprising and unfounded contention made by Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute in a recent NYT op-ed. As it happens, our team at Brookings will be releasing a major report on the clean economy, and like scholars at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we decided to count jobs in solar and wind energy as part of the clean economy, while excluding natural gas related employment. Are we all wrong to do so? I fail to see how. 

Bryce makes an argument against solar and wind that come down to two points: They use more land and, in the case of wind, more steel than natural gas. From these two claims, both of which I would accept at face value, he concludes that gas is better for the environment.

The first problem is that Bryce confuses externalities with the costs of production. An externality, by contrast, is a cost of production that is not borne by producers but by society. Therefore, an externality is not factored into the price and is, in effect, an involuntary subsidy given to the producers by those who are adversely affected. In so far as solar and wind farms require more land per KW of energy, those costs are factored into the price of electricity they generate. So Bryce's point about land use is actually a rather banal observation. It is like saying that innovative energy-efficient dishwashers are not as green as old energy-intensive dishwashers because producing the former requires paying higher priced engineers to invent them.

Of course, sometimes public and even private land is handed over to energy producers at a discounted price, but that amounts to a mundane economic development strategy. It is widespread practice in almost every industry, so long as jobs and tax revenue are promised. Who could count how many acres of land have been given away to the coal, oil, and gas industries for well over a century? This all has little to do with the environment. Less than 6 percent of land in the United States is developed. Land scarcity simply isn’t a problem, even if land-use regulation and access to transmission lines is.

Byrce further argues that gas is greener than wind because wind uses more steel, as if that is the only consideration. It isn’t. The most systematic project that I’ve seen to monetize the environmental damage of different fuel systems is done by the European Commission’s Extern-E. These data, summarized here, show that natural gas results in unpaid environmental impacts that are seven times more costly than wind. That calculation includes the full environmental costs of steel mining and production, as well as costs from the noise pollution of the blades. It turns out that these costs are trivial compared to the significant health and global warming harm caused by gas. The gap between gas and solar photovoltaic (pv) is much less since, as Bryce rightly points out, solar requires the mining of precious elements. Still, gas is 30 percent more costly to the environment than solar pv. (It bears noting that coal is two to three times worse than gas in this study’s measure).

Life-cycle emissions research published in the journal Energy Policy shows that natural gas emits 44 times more grams of carbon equivalent greenhouse gases per KW hour than wind, and 14 times more than solar pv (which is worse than solar thermal). More speculative research has suggested that gas may emit ever larger amounts of greenhouse gases, through the release of methane during extraction. Yet, Bryce claims that using gas over wind and solar will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The oddest thing about Bryce’s article, given his affiliation with an avowedly pro-business think tank, might be that he accepts at face value the opposition of certain conservation groups to the development of wind and solar farms. He interprets that to mean that these projects seriously threaten the environment wherever they take place (he also ignores “distributed solar,” which can be placed on rooftops and the sides of buildings). While he is right to raise the point that solar and wind producers face obstacles in securing land, many of these obstacles are based on complex ownership and regulatory issues that have little, if anything, to do with the environment. Byrce accepts theses concerns as entirely rooted in sound environmental policy. In reality, opposition is rooted in the luxurious preferences for “natural” beauty, as in a recent New Jersey zoning case, which denied a zoning variance on unused farmland because people said they wouldn’t like the look of the solar farm.

Putting the preservation of pristine deserts ahead of solar energy creation is not likely to be a popular sentiment at any time, especially during an economic recession. Take the Tres Amigas project slated for an area near Clovis, New Mexico. When completed, it could supply 5,000 MW (roughly 5 nuclear power plants) of renewable energy, and in upcoming years, that capacity could expand to 30,000 MW. The environmental impact will be reportedly minimal. The only noted opposition is that its multi-state reach will intrude on state regulatory prerogatives. Local editors like those at The Santa Fe New Mexican and the Albuquerque Journal fully endorse it. Evidently, they don’t believe that using land for the purposes of generating renewable energy is an environmental contradiction, and neither do I.